Uphill Battle to Improve China's Death-Trap Mines
BEIJING More than 200 Chinese coal miners lost their lives recently in at least five separate accidents, prompting President Hu Jintao to call for answers and the government to demand stronger enforcement of safety rules.
But analysts say between the high price of coal and China's insatiable energy demand, it will take more than high-level concern to clean up the world's deadliest mining industry.
Rescuers were still struggling to pull bodies from deep inside the Daping mine in Henan province, where a gas explosion trapped nearly 150 miners. There is scant hope of finding anyone alive.
After the blast the government issued an emergency notice calling for stronger enforcement of safety standards, but analysts say that will be tough in the face of huge demand for coal.
"It is in the short-term interests of mine owners and even local officials to cut corners in the interests of increasing output," said Tim Wright, a professor of Chinese Studies at Britain's Sheffield University.
More than 4,000 people have been killed in coal mine accidents this year, but Wright said the numbers were likely higher, with many accidents going unreported.
"The costs if there is an accident are substantial, which is why mine owners go to considerable lengths to cover things up," he said.
In an accident last week at the Desheng Coal Mine in northern Hubei province, the pit owner hampered rescue work by telling officials only six miners were trapped, when in fact there were 29, state media reported. They were still missing.
Deep Pits, Poor Management
China's coal industry, which provides the main fuel for the world's seventh-biggest economy, has expanded with little regulation to keep up with booming demand and as village enterprises spring up to compete with state-owned giants.
Experts say the problem is a combination of difficult conditions, with deep pits and high levels of gases, exacerbated by poor management and the proliferation of illegal mines.
"The government tried to shut down the small, unlicensed mines which are the biggest offenders. But the moment they were shut down and the inspectors left, they started operating again," said Michael Komesaroff, a consultant specialising in mines at Australia's Urandaline Investments. "By the time the government went to punish them, the country was desperate for coal and they were encouraged to produce again. So you have a series of mixed messages," he said.
Komesaroff says little will change until a culture of accountability in mining develops, a point echoed by the International Labor Organization (ILO), which says trying to regulate thousands of mines across the country will have limited effect.
"The leadership commitment is very clear. The laws and regulations are very important. But also they should help managers and workers to develop their own safety management approaches," said Tsuyoshi Kawakami, a health and safety specialist at the ILO.
As families of victims of the Daping tragedy crowded outside the mine and rescuers covered bodies with green canvas sheets, Kawakami was in neighboring Hunan province conducting safety training for small mines and trying to convince managers that improving health and safety was good for production.
"There are very great risks (from accidents) to their own business," he said.
Some of the profits from higher coal prices are starting to go to investment in safety, but experts say Chinese mines remain death traps.
"The price of coal is at its highest point in many years. Coal operators are making money for the first time in many, many years," Komesaroff said. "At the end of the line, the weakest link is the miner."